Mohammed Yacoob portraying Anusalva a demon for Sudhanva Arjuna Play of Yakshagaana

The Art of Yakshagana and Its Artistes

Yacoob practises a hand movement with makeup on.

Prasad Cherkady was studying magnetism and came to Bangalore about fifteen years ago from the coastal town of Brahmavar to study for a PhD at the Indian Institute of Science and realised he wanted to become an artist and perform Yakshagana, instead. He was part of a group called Dheemgina meaning ‘movement’. Mohammed Yacoob, a journalist in Bangalore met Prasad in the group and together they performed a few shows with the troupe

Yakshagaana is like Kathakali in Kerala. The differences in inter regional performances may lie in the choice of the stories or instruments that lend credence to the shows. In Udupi region, stories are told about Madhava or Krishna. Stories of Mahabharata are mainly recreated while in the Hyderabad Karnataka region where the Vachana movement was predominant, stories of Sant Basaveshwara are told. Prasad said, “In the initial days of Yakshagana, the artistes came from a lower strata of society and people from the upper castes were not allowed to participate but it evolved into a more liberal art form as people from diverse communities began to perform including Muslims and Christians.”

Yacoob and Prasad show us a hand movement used to emphasise expressions in Yakshagana

“Historically, Yakshagana was performed throughout Karnataka. It began as a singing art form and slowly transformed over the years when more artistes and characters were added, instruments were added, and it became an entire story telling performance. It received Rajashreya or patronage from the kings of Mysore, the Vijaynagara Kingdom and others. However, once patronage decreased the art form slowly dried up in the rest of the land and now is only a coastal art form,” explains Prasad.

Women perform in non-professional settings, said Prasad with a hint of regret. “Today there are well known women artists such as Mayuri, Niharika and Amrita who perform and are also invited as added attractions in a performance.” One of the early all-women’s troupe was put together in 1989 by Poornima Rai, one of the pioneers of Mahila Yakshagana. “However, in temple troupes they are not welcome because of the usual reasons. There are more women who are learning Yakshagana these days however,” he ruminates!

What began as a folk art is garnering serious interest from younger people who want to learn it. Prasad teaches at Kathegaararu in Bangalore and he gets students from all over India who want to learn Yakshagana and perform.

Yakshagana is patronised by the temples of Dharmasthala, Katilu, Mandarati and more who have their own troupes. Devotees visiting the temples can offer Yakshagaana performances to the Gods as an offering. Earlier Yakshagana performances were all night long but now they begin in the evening and end by midnight.

One troupe presents a performance for 180 days at a stretch, that is six months. Each show costs at least INR One Lakh and these can be organized as offerings to deities in temples.  There are Yakshagana troupes as well who perform on invitations at home and on cultural occasions.

“These performances energize the spectators and the effects last for a week,” emphasizes Prasad.


I always feel that true art has the power to sustain itself by adapting and metamorphosing its process to suit the present milleu. As Prasad says, “I feel energised,” and Yacoob says, “Performing helps me in my writing work, removes stress and gives me immense joy.” The performing artistes are connected to the world of mythology, stories, music and dance and this connection gives them the energy to renew their lives and works towards social sustainability.

“Yakshagana has adapted itself in a similar way and today’s performances are often based on modern stories such as the movie Bahubali and Shakespeare’s play Macbeth,” says Prasad. “There was a Telugu film based on King Lear and a very popular Yakshagana Prasanga (episode) was based on it called as Papanna Vijayguna Sundari. Episodes based on A Midummer’s Night Dream and other novels have been made and lapped up by the audiences. Lots of experiments are on around Yakshagana, such as performances in English, Malayalam and Tulu.” 

Yacoob feels, “The performances can be likened to European opera which are full of song, dance and theatre.”


Bhagavataru in costume

It is believed traditionally along the Karnataka coastal belt that certain ancestral spirits protect families that have lived there over the years, such as Panjurli as shown in the movie Kantara. Buta Kola is a ritualistic song and dance performance dedicated to the ancestral spirits. “That is where it differs from Yakshagana as has been made famous by the movie Kantara which means a mystical forest,” says Prasad. 

He has future plans of making movies on Yakshagana and its artistes and is in the process of writing and pitching scripts while Yacoob enjoys the sheer joy of performing.

~ By Papiya Bhattacharya

Interested in learning more? Contact Kathegaararu at 9611134810  

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